Clark County postpones decision on mining

Commissioner Mielke abruptly ends meeting amid jeers from crowd

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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The indefinite postponement of a proposal to expand mining zones in Clark County is raising eyebrows among concerned neighbors, who are questioning the Clark County commissioners' decision to abruptly end their Tuesday evening meeting without attempting to reach a decision.

County Commissioner Tom Mielke, the board's chairman, ended the meeting after people began heckling comments he was making about needing more information about the mining zones before moving forward. Amid the jeers, Mielke declared the meeting adjourned and pounded his gavel — nearly three hours after testimony began.

He said Wednesday he did not know when the county might reconsider the proposal, adding that it was in no hurry to do so.

Neighbors of existing mining quarries say they would be affected by an update of the county's "surface mining overlay," which designates areas in which the county allows the mining of rock aggregate. Updating the overlay would open the door to expanding mining operations in Clark County, particularly on Livingston Mountain and Yacolt Mountain.

The county's planning commission voted against the proposal last fall after holding four public forums. The state's Department of Natural Resources, however, has requested the county reconsider that recommendation.

Most of the comments Tuesday were critical of expanding the mining overlay. Neighbors argued that the quarries clogged rural roads with trucks, depressed property values, created safety hazards and impacted the environment. While extending the overlay would make it easier for new mining in the future, many neighbors say they'd prefer to have the mines gone altogether.

Mielke said he postponed making a decision because he needed to review "new information."

"I would hate to make a decision without knowing more or addressing the issues," he said.

Some of that information came from John Dentler, an attorney who works for J.L. Storedahl & Sons Inc., a company that operates mines in Clark County. He was also the only person to provide testimony in favor of expanding the overlay on Livingston Mountain saying doing so would meet the state's Growth Management Act.

Mielke suggested giving Dentler more time to provide additional information. That suggestion elicited boos from the crowd, who thought Mielke was bending the rules. Mielke dismissed Dentler without receiving the additional information.

Some neighbors worried that Mielke's financial relationship with the Storedahl family — family members contributed $500 to his 2012 re-election campaign — may be coloring the commissioner's views in favor of expanding mining operations.

"It was clear to everybody that he was there with an agenda and was trying to sell us on what he was purporting," said Jeff Shafer, a resident of Livingston Mountain. "He shouldn't be the one making the decision."

He called it curious Mielke suggested he needed additional information and, without receiving it, adjourned the meeting so suddenly.

On Wednesday, Mielke said the financial contributions played no role in his decision-making, adding that the family contributed to his campaign because they know he understands the mining industry.

He said the commission will look at what to do with the surface mining overlay when he has more answers. The county has until 2016 to make a decision, he said.

"There are a lot of questions (about what's required) that are not being answered right now," Mielke said.